A train pulled up, causing the wind to catch her hair, filling the air with the smell of gasoline. Terry stood, watching the hustle of people rushing on and off the machine; adults towering over her small stature as she carried an old, graying stuffed panda bear in one hand and clutched the strap of her Toy Story backpack in the other. A handful of the adults rushing past turned back once or twice to stare at the little girl waiting at the train station alone, but all kept moving, balancing briefcases, papers, and cups of coffee as they did so.
One man saw Terry and stopped. A different little girl, about the same height, was clutching the man’s hand while pulling on his arm in order to stoop and observe a ladybug on the sidewalk. After a moment’s pause he started walking towards Terry, the little girl tugging to go back to the ladybug. The docked train began to pull away, wheezing and squeaking as the wheels began to turn and catch speed.
“Daddy! Daaaddyyy! Ladybug! I want to see the ladybug!” The little girl wailed, crying and stamping her feet on the concrete. The man kept tugging her along, ignoring her cries. The train station was now quiet, most of the awaiting passengers sitting inside, away from the burning sun of a California August, their eyes glued to laptops and cell phones.
The tall man approached Terry slowly, kneeling down before gently touching her left arm. She started, turning suddenly and dropping her toy in the process.
“Hi,” the man said, talking quietly while holding his own little girl to his side, “I’m Clark and this is my little girl, Aria. What’s your name?” Aria waved slowly, wiping her tears with the other hand.
Terry kept silent. The man picked up the panda bear, handing it to her.
“Hey, you can talk!” Clark smiled. The girl in his arms reached out to touch the panda, but Terry recoiled, clutching her toy. “That’s not your toy, that’s hers, ok sweetie? Leave it alone.”
Another train rolled in, bringing in a new slew of adults carrying briefcases and coffee. The other adults, grabbing their belongings, rushed out of the air-conditioned building and into the heat, eyes squinting against the midmorning glare blasting off the train’s white exterior. Terry watched them rush back and forth, back and forth, people bumping into one another and politely exchanging a hurried “Sorry!” or stopping to yell at one another in angry voices. One woman almost tripped over her as she was walking and texting, but Clark pulled Terry out of the way before any damage could be done. After a while, the train doors closed and once again the wheezing and squealing of strained wheels reached their ears. Terry kept her eyes on the train as it made its way out of the station.
“Are you lost? What’s your name?” Clark reached to touch Terry’s shoulder again, but she stepped back. She was sweating slightly and a bead dripped down into her ear. She shook it out and looked at the man.
“I’m not lost, thank you.” She clutched the strap of her backpack, repositioning it while balancing her panda bear in the other tiny hand.
“Then where are your parents?” Clark looked around. Except for a couple of other adults dressed in business attire and staring at their own personal belongings, there was no one else around who looked as if Terry belonged to them. An elderly couple on a bench outside in the sun stared over at them, but the lack of concern on their faces did not hint to them being family. Terry was quiet, staring at the tracks. She turned to Clark.
“Mommy’s at home.”
“What about your daddy?”
“Daddy is on a train to Otarmensac.” She almost whispered it, and Clark had to lean in to hear her. Hugging the stuffed animal, Terry turned back to the tracks.
“What’s Otomens?” Aria piped up, tapping Terry’s shoulder and breaking free from her father’s grasp long enough to stand in front of the girl.
“Not ‘Otomens,’ Otarmensac. Look.” Terry handed her the panda bear, taking her backpack off and placing it on the ground. “I found it last night on the map, after Mommy went to sleep and I found Daddy’s note next to her on the couch. They thought I was asleep, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t read the whole thing because Mommy says I get my letters mixed up sometimes but I knew that word. I knew it!” She kept rummaging through the backpack, which was worn, the plastic covering featuring Woody and Buzz starting to fade and peel.
“I do that too!” Aria beamed. “Sometimes, when Daddy thinks I’m asleep, I play with my toys instead.”
“This is different.”
“No it’s not!” Aria reached out to push Terry, but she duck out of the way.
“Aria, no pushing! Sorry, she’s only five. We’re still working on that.” Clark grabbed his daughter, pulling her close again as he watched Terry rummage through her backpack. There were wrinkled clothes, black dress shoes, a red plastic hairbrush, and a pink toothbrush stuffed inside. The map was crinkled, hidden at the bottom, and she pulled it out with triumph.
“How old are you?” Clark looked at the backpack as he asked her.
“Seven. But that’s not what I want to tell you.”
“You’re so small for seven,” he whispered. Terry, not hearing, spread out the map on the ground.
“I knew this place because Daddy always pointed at it on the map when he was teaching me about California.” Terry started to become animated, smiling and pointing to a red sparkle star sticker on the map. “I couldn’t read the rest of the letter, but I heard them talking, when they thought I was asleep, but I wasn’t asleep and I heard them. He said he was going on a train to the place he loved and to the people he loved and once I looked at the letter I knew it was this!” She pointed with vigor, moving the map slightly in the process. “Look! This is where he is!” Clark bent over the map, a bead of sweat escaping his brow and landing on San Diego.
“That doesn’t say Otarmensac,” Aria stated.
Terry looked up. “Yes it does!”
“Aria, stop talking sweetheart.”
“No, she’s wrong!”
“Aria!” Clark turned his daughter around to face him. “Stop. Talking.” Aria began fidgeting and Clark had to struggle to keep hold of her.
“Stop it!” Terry began to scream. “That is where my daddy is! That’s where he left to, and that’s where I’m going, too!” Tears bubbled at her eyes, “I’m going to save him. He left and he didn’t say goodbye. I have to save him!”
Clark, holding Aria back in a strong grip, stared at the little girl in front of him. He watched her sink down to the ground, crying silently, and looked at the map, the red sparkly star sticker marking Sacramento.
When she seemed to settle down a bit, Clark cleared his throat. “Do you have a train ticket? I mean, I could help you. Help you find this Otarmensac place. Aria and I could do it.” He handed the panda bear back to her.
Taking it, Terry looked up at the man. Tears streaked her tiny face, and when she went to talk, another train began to pull in the station, wheels screeching in response to the brakes pressuring them to stop.
Amidst the hustle of briefcases, dropped cups of coffee, and a blur of black and beige suits, a man got off the train. His hair was streaked with grays that didn’t like to be gelled down; his shirt was a ragged blue and black flannel button down, holes in the breast pockets, with worn blue jeans and sneakers that looked as if they had walked miles. Terry squinted in the direction of the man. He was holding a black overnight bag and seemed to be searching for someone. She stood, packing up her possessions with anxious vigor.
Clark watched Terry, concern growing on his face. “Did I scare you? I’m so sorry, no, no, relax, we’ll call someone to come get you, ok? You’re going to be ok.”
Not answering him, Terry kept packing, grabbing hold of the wrinkled map last, smashing it into her backpack, the paper making ripping, crunching sounds in the process.
“Slow down, will you?” Clark went to reach for Terry, but before he could, she bolted into the rushing crowd behind him, screaming something along way that he couldn’t understand. Clark stood, carrying Aria in his arms. He ran through the crowd as well, searching desperately for the little girl with the colorful backpack and panda bear stuffed animal.
Clark ran and searched, looking right past a man with wild streaks of gray hair who stooped over a child to throw her off his leg, and moving backwards slowly in disgust as she got back up, clutching her backpack and shaking her head violently. Turning, she weaved through the legs and bodies of adults looking at their phones and papers, barely noticing the little girl who hopped into the train just as the doors were closing. Screeching and wheezing from the weight of the train, the wheels began to move and the machine awoke, leaving behind an empty train station. Empty, except for one man in grungy jeans meeting up with a blonde woman, and another man, clutching his daughter and looking around in a state of panic.
Erin Beirne is a student at Chapman University in Orange, California. She has loved writing since the age of twelve and has enjoyed getting to practice her writing at Chapman for the last four years as a creative writing major. Beirne notes, “In my writing, I tend to search for the meaning behind the complexities of human nature, and those consequences that occur from our most meaningless of actions.”